Dr. Sam Ahn, research fellow at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York presented findings from a co-authored study about consumer attitudes and response to the new food allergen labels at the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology annual conference in Philadelphia. (The study was co-authored by Dr. Scott Sicherer at Mount Sinai Medical Center, Terrence Furlong and Christopher Weiss, PhD. of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network of Virginia). The purpose of the study was to determine food allergic consumers' response to both the FDA legislated food labels as well as the voluntary labels such as "may contain," statements which are NOT regulated by the FDA.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) became effective for all packaged foods in January 2006. It is applied to the 8 major allergens (egg, milk, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish). However, FALCPA does not address raw meat, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables nor does it address other food allergens not considered "major," such as seeds and spices. For example, in Canada, sesame is the 9th major allergen.
More importantly, cautionary statements, such as "may contain," "manufactured in the same facility as" or "manufactured using the same equipment" are voluntary according to each manufacturer. There are no universal standards for what they mean. Dr. Sicherer underscored the point, stating that: "it is important to know that these statements aren't regulated."
Ignore "May Contain" Labeling At Your Own Risk
According to the press conference, the study was done to get feedback about the post-FALCPA labeling; there were a total of 471 completed questionnaires. Ninety-five percent of consumers agree that allergens were easier to find because of the labels; 74% said they have more confidence in food labels when allergens are listed.
However, more people are buying products with the voluntary labeling, which may indicate that they aren't paying too much attention to them. In other words, people with peanut allergies may be buying products that say "may contain peanuts."
In an e-mail, Dr. Ahn wrote that people may be buying the products despite the labels because "they think that the risk is really low, but in a sense, they are still ignoring the label to some degree. This is all assuming that there is some degree of risk of allergen exposure if a label has these precautionary statements, but because they are not regulated, we don't know exactly what level of risk this is."
Therefore, if a product has one of these voluntary labels, "we should believe that it may be possible for traces of allergen to makes its way into the product. So for this reason, even though [the labels] are unregulated, ignoring them completely still can put the consumer at risk," Ahn wrote.
- The new labeling laws have resulted in stronger consumer satisfaction.
- Unregulated allergen statements may, increasingly, be ignored.
- The food allergic consumer does not as yet understand the full details of the food allergen labeling laws as it pertains to food regulated by the FDA and not the www.usda.gov USDA (that would be raw meat, fruits and vegetables).
The researchers provided these suggestions to further improve consumer confidence:
- Create standards for the voluntary cautionary statements.
- Consider adding additional allergens beyond the top 8 (like seeds and spices).
- Require companies to maintain toll-free information hotlines and list those numbers on their food labels (food allergic consumers found toll-free information hot lines more useful than company Web sites, according to the survey results)